Category Archives: Plants & Fungi

Deer Are Picky Eaters

Arrowwood viburnum, Schenley Park, September 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 September 2022

In western Pennsylvania, where we have a high deer population, gardeners have learned from experience that white-tailed deer will eat some plants and not others. They heavily browse their favorites to the point of killing them but leave others untouched, even plants in the same genus.

Viburnum is a case in point. Gardening advice at Rutgers University’s Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance indicates that arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) is deer resistant. Pictured at top, these shrubs are healthy in Schenley Park where the deer population is more than 100 per square mile.

Deer also don’t like the Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum) which thrives as an invasive in Frick Park, shown below.

Viburnum plicatum fruit, Schenley, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

But they love our native hobblebush (Viburnum lactoides) and consume it to local extinction.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lactoides) is a favorite food of deer (photo taken in Maine by Kate St. John)

Read about hobblebush in this vintage article.

When it comes to viburnum, deer are picky eaters.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Why Is Wingstem Thriving in City Parks?

Honeybee approaches wingstem, Frick Park, 8 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

17 September 2022

In Schenley and Frick Parks you can look straight through the forest if you duck your head below four feet high. In Schenley Park the ground is often bare and most plants in that four-foot zone are gone. But one flower, wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), is doing just fine in the city parks.

Wingstem, Frick Park, 8 Sep 2022

The absence of cover from the ground to 4 – 5 feet is called a browseline (below) and is evidence of an overpopulation of white-tailed deer.

Bare ground and absence of cover below the trees in Schenley Park, September 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

According to this KDKA report, the deer population in Schenley Park is estimated at 80-150, which roughly equates to 100-200 deer per square mile. A healthy population in a balanced forest would be 20-30 deer per square mile, so any plant that survives in the Pittsburgh’s city parks is something that deer don’t eat.

Doe browsing in Schenley Park, September 2022 (photo by Kate Sr. John)

So why don’t deer eat wingstem?

A thicket of wingstem on the “elbow” trail, Frick Park, 8 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The leaves are bitter!

Find out more about wingstem at Illinois wildflowers.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week

Biennial gaura, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 September 2022

Hays Woods showed off its flowers and insects during our visit to Nick Liadis’ birding banding project on Wednesday.

Biennial gaura (Gaura biennis) and honeysuckle vine were both blooming in pink. Interestingly, gaura flowers bloom white and fade to pink, while this non-native honeysuckle starts pink and fades to white and then yellow.

Don’t be fooled by the camera’s perspective. Gaura flowers are very small compared to honeysuckle.

Non-native honeysuckle vine, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

A Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica or yellow woolly bear) hung out on mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), a very common and invasive plant at Hays Woods.

Virginian tiger moth, Hays Woods, 7 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Another invasive, Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica), blooms profusely at Hays Woods. Many insect pollinators love the flowers.

Japanese knotweed in bloom, 3 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

Late August Colors

Squash blooming at the maintenance heap in Frick Park, 27 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

3 September 2022

Late August colors came in orange, yellow, purple, gray and green in Frick Park and Moraine State Park.

Above, squash(*) blooms on a fence in Frick.

Yellow daisies without petals are actually tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), native to Eurasia.

Tansy blooming at Frick Park, 25 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The deep purple of New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) is never true to color in my cellphone photos. Instead it looks redder than expected because the Pixel 5 Photo app apparently overcompensates for the camera’s blue bias. All cameras have problems with purple, described in this vintage article: Not Truly Blue.

Ironweed blooming at Moraine State Park, 26 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

This velvety bright orange mushroom in Frick deserved a photo on 25 August. Jim Chapman re-found it the next day and identified it as northern cinnabar polypore (Trametes cinnabarina, a.k.a. Pycnoporus cinnabarinus). By then it was already darker orange than this.

Cinnabar polypore, Frick Park, 25 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Insects specialize on their own host plants. False sunflowers have red aphids. Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) has gray ones.

Wingstem with gray aphids, Frick Park, 25 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

And everywhere in late August there is green.

(*) Did you know that zucchini, pumpkin, summer squash and pattypan squash are all cultivars of Curcubita pepo? The plant pictured at top seems to be producing pattypan squash.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Meet the Familiar: Synanthrope

Pigeons on a traffic light (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 August 2022

I had never seen the word “synanthrope” until I found it attached to this photo.

Passer domesticus as synanthrope (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are synanthropes. So are pigeons.

synanthrope (syn-anthrope) [from Greek: syn-anthrope: syn=”together with” + anthropos=”man”] is a wild animal or plant that lives near, and benefits from, an association with humans and the somewhat artificial habitats that people create around themselves.

Wikipedia: Synanthrope

We can be forgiven for not knowing this little-used word since its present meaning is only 74 years old(*).

Synanthropes live with us but we often disparage them. They are wild but too familiar, too “tame,” too weedy. Here are some more examples.

Dandelions (Taraxacum sp.)

Dandelions in the grass (photo by Kate St. John)

Horseweed (Erigeron canadensis) and pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) are native North American plants that like disturbed soil. We notice them in August when they start to look ugly.

Horseweed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Closeup of pilewort flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

Two local mammals may be recent synanthropes, formerly shunning humans but now benefiting from our habitat.

Squirrels love our birdseed and shelter (attics).

Squirrel on the bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) prefer forest edges next to open areas, a landscape often created by humans. Have deer become synanthropes?

Buck in velvet at Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. (*) Merriam-Webster explains that the word was introduced by botanist Theodor von Heldreich at a botanical conference in Paris, 16-24 August 1878, making its first-ever use almost exactly 144 years ago.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)

Eradicated By Deer

Doe in Schenley Park, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

22 August 2022

Back in 2010 the City of Pittsburgh commissioned a deer count in the parks that found the population was too high and not sustainable for the habitat. Nothing has been done since then to reduce the deer population other then accidentally killing them with our cars.

Twelve years have passed. According to deer experts “Urban deer can live for 10 years; the deer population, if unchecked, doubles about every two years.” Schenley Park now has as much as 64 times the number of deer we had in 2010. This is truly unsustainable, even for the deer themselves.

8-point buck in Schenley Park, 21 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley’s deer have completely consumed all the good food plants and are starting to nibble the poisonous ones. The browse line is painfully obvious. In the process deer have eradicated their favorite plants from Schenley Park.

Orange (Impatiens capensis) & Yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida)

Orange jewelweed and yellow jewelweed provide nectar for hummingbirds and bumblebees and are a favored food of deer.

Orange jewelweed in Schenley Park in 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow jewelweed in Schenley Park in 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Both jewelweeds were prolific in Schenley Park as recently as four years ago.

Orange jewelweed was prolific in 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

But this year all the accessible plants have been eaten down to bare stems. The only ones that flower are those in spots unreachable by deer — on extremely steep slopes or hidden among thick cattails in Panther Hollow Lake.

Deer ate the jewelweed, no flowers, no leaves (photo by Kate St. John)

Jewelweeds are annuals that must re-seed every year but no seeds are produced in this deer-browsed landscape. Impatiens will disappear from Schenley Park when the seed bank is exhausted.

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum)

False Solomon’s seal used to grow throughout Schenley Park and it carpeted the ground in an area near the Bridle Trail. All of it has been eaten to the ground since 2014. Here’s what it looked like eight years ago.

False Solomon’s seal blooming in May 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)
False Solomon’s seal in August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
White wood asters (Eurybia divaricata)

White wood asters used to bloom in Schenley’s woods. Not anymore. Here’s what they looked like in 2013.

White wood asters in Schenley Park, August 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eradicated plants are indirect evidence of too many deer in Schenley Park. Direct evidence is their visibility every day.

A sustainably-sized deer herd would hide in the underbrush while sleeping during the day, but the browse line in Schenley is so severe there is no cover for them. The large herd has coped by becoming accustomed to people and leashed dogs.

I stood near this group of three deer on Sunday 21 August using my snapshot camera zoomed to 90mm (approximately 2x). This 8-point buck did not care that I was there.

8-point buck in velvet, Schenley Park, 21 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Young doe and buck browsing in Schenley Park, 21 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Doe watches a husky dog on a leash approach in the distance, Schenley Park, 21 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

UPDATE: I was interviewed by Andy Sheehan, KDKA News, 25 August 2022. Click on this link or on the image below. Experts warn deer are destroying Pittsburgh’s parks and moving into neighborhoods.

Video: Experts warn deer are destroying Pittsburgh’s parks and moving into neighborhoods

Three articles, 2017-2019, about deer in Allegheny County by John Hayes, Post-Gazette:

Seen This Week

Long shadows are back again, 12 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 August 2022

The days are getting shorter and shadows are getting longer. Pittsburgh had one and a half more hours of daylight on the summer solstice, just two months ago, than we do today.

Late summer flowers are attracting bees.

Allium flower with bee, 16 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Ornamental grasses are going to seed.

Ornamental grass at Phipps (photo by Kate St. John)

And the clouds have been interesting.

Puffy clouds over Millers Ponds, Crawford County, 15 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Can you see the face in the cloud below?

Glowing eyes in the face in the cloud, 17 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Keep looking up.

(photos by Kate St. John)

I Love Yew

White-tailed deer browsing leaves in Newark, OH (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 August 2022

Yews are popular landscaping shrubs but they don’t last long in the face of deer overpopulation.

All yew species are toxic to some degree, but our native Taxus canadensis is less toxic than others and was used medicinally. Deer don’t read the warning labels. They love yew.

Closeup of Canadian yew branch and leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Canadian yew aril and branch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Every night they creep up behind Carnegie Museum and browse the yews along the driveway to the parking garage. They nip off the small branches and eat all the leaves. The shrubs struggle to grow new leaves for photosynthesis before the deer return.

Yew overbrowsed by deer behind Carnegie Museum, 16 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Deer have killed the yews closest to the sidewalk (dead twigs), overbrowsed the middle shrubs (green knobs), and cannot yet reach the tallest branches. But they are eating their way there.

Yews browsed by deer behind Carnegie Museum, 16 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Don’t assume their love stops with yew. There are more delectables in Schenley Park that they adore. Soon we’ll explore more.

Doe and fawn browsing a tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. Just for yuks here are 13 garden plants that deer will utterly destroy. Meanwhile, did you know that Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) is so toxic it can kill wildlife? Unfortunately its pollen triggers asthma.

Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) closeup of leaves and stem (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Who Eats a Mile-a-Minute?

Mile-a-minute weed in Frick Park, July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

11 August 2022

For 24 days — 5-29 August 2022 — a team of goats and their guard donkey from Allegheny Goatscape are back in Frick Park eating invasive plants.

One of their targets is invasive mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata). It has thorns all over it …

Mile-a-minute weed in fruit (photo by Kate St. John)

.. but the goats eat it anyway. The challenge will be: Can they eat it fast enough?

Learn how mile-a-minute got to North America in the article below. Pennsylvania is involved!

(photos by Kate St. John)

Fossil in Schenley Park

Closeup #1 of fossil in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

10 August 2022

Sometime this summer the Department of Public Works placed a large sandstone rock at the base of the stairs behind the Schenley Park Visitors’ Center. The prominent fossil facing the stairs tells a story about life in Pittsburgh 300 to 330 million years ago.

Fossil rock at the base of the WPA stairs, Schenley Park, 6 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

During the late Carboniferous period, while this rock was still sand, a Lepidodendron tree fell on it. Lepidodendron had scales on its branches and trunk that left impressions in the sand, illustrated below in increasingly fine detail.

Lepidodendron artist’s rendering (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)
Lepidodendron trunk or branch and resulting fossil impression (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

The sand became sandstone and in the early 21st century the rock separated from its fellows thereby exposing the fossil. This rock many have fallen at the Bridle Trail rockslide.

Locations of two closeup photos of the fossil in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)
Closeup #2 of fossil in Schenley Park (photo by Kate St. John)

I have never seen Lepidodendron’s closest living relative, Lycopodium, in Schenley Park …

Lycopodium (ground pine or club moss), Laurel Ridge State park, 30 May 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

… but I’ll look for it now that I’ve seen its fossil ancestor.

Thank you to Public Works for placing this fossil rock on display in Schenley Park.

p.s. If this Lepidodendron had fallen in a swamp instead of on a sandy beach, it would have become coal. Read about similar fossils at Ferncliff Peninsula in Ohiopyle State Park in this vintage article: Fossils at Ferncliff

(photos by Kate St. John, illustrations from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)